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Uranium: a breath of optimism

Serge Perreault, Resident Geologist
Service de Géologie Québec

  • Uranium deposits in Québec >>
  • Québec's potential >>
  • History of uranium economics >>
  • Today >>
  • World production of uranium >>
  • References >>

Québec’s mining industry is showing a renewed interest for uranium after 22 years of relative inactivity. Although most uranium production is concentrated in Saskatchewan and the majority of exploration expenditures are focused in that province, Québec still represents a promising territory for uranium exploration. The mineral exploration work that has covered large expanses of the province has only limited significance for current uranium exploration due to the lack of radiometric, geochemical and geological data relevant to the commodity. However, thanks to a recent geochemical survey of lake bottom sediment in the Far North, a mapping project in the northern part of the Superior Province, and judicial use of the SIGEOM database, it is now possible to plan field exploration programs for territories that were never examined in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Uranium deposits in Québec

Québec experienced two waves of exploration for uranium. The first took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s and was accompanied by the completion of large regional airborne radiometric surveys by the Geological Survey of Canada. These surveys only covered southern Québec. The second period began in the mid-1970’s and ended in the early 1980’s. Since then, exploration for uranium has practically ceased. Beginning in the fall of 2004, known uranium deposits aroused the interest of several junior and senior companies that had returned to Québec.

In Québec, several types of uranium deposits are known (Clark and Wares, 2004; Sidex 2004; SIGEOM-Gîtes; Boily and Gosselin, 2004; Gosselin et al., 2003; Masse, 1974):


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  • Sandstone-hosted stratiform deposits of sedimentary origin (Sakami Formation [e.g., Lac Gayot (Fearless One) and Lac Bert deposits]; Chioak Group in the Labrador Trough [e.g., Chioak showing]);
  • Unconformity-related deposits, like those of the Athabaska Basin (e.g., Rivière Camie and Lac du Castor deposits in the Otish Basin);
  • Epithermal vein-type deposits with copper and/or associated with albitization (e.g., Sagar showing, in the Labrador Trough);
  • Uranium–gold deposits in conglomerates, like those of Elliot Lake in Ontario (Apple Formation in the Superior Province);
  • Iron oxide-type with uranium, copper and gold associations, like Olympic Dam in Australia (e.g., Nipissis [Kwijibo] showings on the North Shore);
  • Deposits associated with pegmatites and granitoids (e.g., Grenville Province showings in the Mont-Laurier–Grand-Remous region and the Baie-Johan-Beetz and Aguanish, regions on the Côte-Nord);
  • Palabora-type deposits associated with carbonatites or alkaline igneous complexes (e.g., the Oka carbonatite or the Strange Lake deposit in the alkaline complex of Lac Brisson)

Québec’s potential

Most of the showings worked between the 1960’s and 1980’s did not turn out to be economical. Nonetheless, a potential for economic uranium deposits definitely does exist in Québec.

  • The Paleoproterozoic sedimentary rocks in the Bassin Otish, Sakami Formation and those bordering the Labrador Trough (Chioak Group) represent highly favourable zones for unconformity-type (Athabaska-type) and stratiform sandstone hosted-type deposits. It would thus be interesting to also evaluate the potential of the Wakeham Group in the Grenville Province.
  • The Labrador Trough is a perfect example for vein-type deposits associated with albitization. The potential for the Ungava Orogen (Ungava Trough) and the Grenville Province are still to be determined.
  • Deposits associated with pegmatites (alaskites) and Rossing-type (Namibia) peraluminous granitoids are well known in the Grenville Province and examples are also documented in the Superior Province. It would be interesting to know if any are present in the Core Zone (hinterland) between the eastern limits of the Labrador Trough and the Torngat Orogen. The presence of migmatized metasediments, a trail of sizeable granitic intrusions (e.g., the De Pas batholith), and uraniferous anomalies in lake bottom sediments warrant further investigation of this extensive territory.
  • With respect to the uranium potential in the Appalachians, only a few showings are known (e.g., Saint-Armand and Sainte-Anne-du-Lac near Thetford-Mines). However, this geological province warrants further attention due to its position near major transport infrastructures and North American markets.
  • Finally, there may be a potential for uranium deposits associated with felsic volcanic rocks with subalkaline to hyperalkaline affinities (e.g., Michelin deposit in Labrador). The Wakeham Group (Grenville Province), some of the volcanic units in the Nouveau-Québec Orogen and the Appalachians represent target areas for this type of deposit.

History of uranium economics

The great depression experienced by the uranium market can be attributed to a number of factors, including the major accidents at nuclear facilities in the United States (1970) and the ex-USSR (1986) that slowed or completely halted the construction of new nuclear facilities in these and several other industrialized countries. New supply sources of secondary plutonium and uranium made their appearance on the market in the 1990’s following the nuclear disarmament of the two superpowers, the recycling of uranium and plutonium fuel rods, and the liquidation of uranium inventories (Comb, 2004; World Nuclear Association, October 2004).

Between 1970 and 1984, the uranium market was dominated by a primary production that exceeded the needs of nuclear reactors. The production was based on erroneous forecasts of a sharp increase in nuclear energy production (Sidex, 2004). Right up until 1990, the primary production of uranium oxide (U3O8) largely exceeded demand. After 1990, U3O8 production declined in proportion to demand (Comb, 2004), and stockpiles were even liquidated between 1985 and 2003.

Starting about two years ago, the spot price for U3O8 increased dramatically to attain US$30/lb in October 2003 (source: Ux Weekly; Bonnel and Chapman, 2005). It was in 1976-1977 that the price of U3O8 attained its historic high at just over US$100/lb (price in 2004 dollars or ~ US$43/lb in current dollars). This high was followed by a rapid decline, beginning in 1980, to bottom out at under US$8/lb in 2001. Spot prices account for about 15% of the uranium market, whereas 85% of transactions are carried out in the form of long-term contracts, generally at a higher cost than the spot price (Sidex, 2004).

Today

In the years since the Kyoto summit, prominent industrialized countries have made efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, which are partly responsible for the climate changes noted by scientists for over a century. With the exception of hydro-electricity, solar energy and wind energy, nuclear energy releases the least amount of greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels (World Nuclear Association, February 2005). In order to meet their Kyoto commitments and reduce their dependence on oil and natural gas to meet their energy needs, many industrialized countries have decided to construct new nuclear power plants. Furthermore a rising demand in energy needs by emerging countries like China, India and some in southeast Asia, the progressive depletion of several currently mined deposits is anticipated shortage between now and the next 10 to 15 years. The current production of primary uranium represents 55% of the needs of operating nuclear reactors (World Nuclear Association, October 2004). Collectively, these are the necessary ingredients for an upsurge of uranium spot prices, which would lead to a renewed interest on the part of mining companies to dedicate some of their exploration expenditures for uranium.

World production of uranium

World production of uranium attained 36,300 tonnes in 2003 (Bonel, 2005). World reserves for ore with a production cost of less than US$40/kg are estimated at nearly 2 Mt uranium, representing more than a 30-year supply for existing reactors (Sidex, 2004). The Canadian production for 2004 amounts to 13,676 tonnes of U3O8 concentrate and is equivalent to 30% of world production. This production is evaluated at CA$800 million. Uranium resources with low production costs (Reasonably Assured Resources and Category I Estimated Additional Resources) amount to 590,000 tonnes U3O8 and corresponds to 12% of world production. For comparison, global reserves with low production costs are twice that of Canadian reserves. Canadian production comes entirely from Saskatchewan (Athabaska Basin). In 2003, about $13 million dedicated to off-site mineral exploration, mainly in Saskatchewan (World Nuclear Association, August 2005). At the present time, Québec does not produce uranium.

References

Bonel, K.A., 2005. Uranium, In World metals and minerals review 2005, éditeurs Metal Bulletin, British Geological Survey and Industrial Minerals, p. 293-297.

Clark, T. and Wares, R. 2004. Synthèse lithotectonique et métallogénique de l’Orogène du Nouveau-Québec (Fosse du Labrador), Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune, Québec; MM 2004-01, 182 p.

Comb, J., 2004. Fueling the future: A new paradigm assuring uranium supplies in an abnormal market, World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium, September 8-10 2004, London, 16 p.

Boily. M. and Gosselin, C., 2004. Les principaux types de minéralisations en métaux rares (Y-Zr-Nb-Ta-Li-Be-ETR) au Québec, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune, Québec, ET 2004-01, 41 p.

Gosselin, C. and collaborators, 2003. Rare metals mineralizations in Québec (Y-Zr-Nb-Ta-Li-Be-ETR), Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune, Québec, DV 2003-04.

Masse, J.P., 1974. L’uranium au Québec, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune, Québec; GM 51690, 88 p.

SIDEX, 2004. Exploring for uranium in Québec, SIDEX Diversification Bulletin, November 2004, 12 p.

World Nuclear Association, 2004. Uranium markets, October 2004, 5 p.

World Nuclear Association, 2005. Sustainable Energy, February 2005, 5 p.

World Nuclear Association, 2005. Canada’s uranium production and nuclear power, August 2005, 8 p.

Other suggested readings on uranium deposit types in Canada and the world:

Geology of Canadian Mineral Deposit Types, edited by O.R. Eckstrand, W.D. Sinclair and R.I. Thorpe, Geological Survey of Canada, Geology of Canada, no. 8, 1996. See sections 1.1, 1.2, 7, 8.1, 12, 13, 14, 21 and 22.

Dahlkamp, F.J., 1993. Uranium ore deposits. Springer-Verlag, New-York Berlin Heidelberg; 460 pages.